Marcia Hensley: The Legacy Of Single Women Homesteaders


Marcia Hensley grew up in Missouri and spent most of her childhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma before moving to Wyoming.

She wrote the book 'Staking Her Claim: Women Homesteading the West' about women pioneers in and around Wyoming.

Listen in to hear Marcia discuss her favorite characters in her book, why there aren't any failure stories of female pioneers, and why it was difficult for her to get her book published.

Emy diGrappa: Today we're talking to author Marcia Hensley about her journey to Wyoming and her book, Staking Her Claim: Women Homesteading the West. Welcome, Marcia.

Marcia Hensley: Well, thank you for having me.

Emy diGrappa: I noticed in your bio that you grew up in Missouri and then it sounds like you spent most of your growing up years in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Is that right?

Marcia Hensley: Yes. That's correct. I kind of started my westward journey with a little Southern, uh, loop there in Tulsa, but yeah, I went to, all my schooling was in Oklahoma at the University of Oklahoma at University of Tulsa. And, um, I always, even then and as a child, I had a real fascination about the West, but the Tulsa that I lived in, the [inaudible 00:00:48] part was not really very west. It was more influenced by Southern values, kind of a Bible belt area. But it was a good place to be, and, uh, and I grew up a happy childhood, and got a good education.

Emy diGrappa: And so what was your intrigue with Wyoming?

Marcia Hensley: Well, when I was in college, uh, like- like I said, I've always been sort of interested in the West, or even as a child, I guess through Western movies. But when I was in college, I had an opportunity to work in Yellowstone National Park one summer, and that just began my fascination with Wyoming especially. I just was very taken with the atmosphere, with the landscape of course. Basically I just fell in love with Wyoming, and I always hoped, you know, it was like, well it was this, uh, dream scape that maybe someday I might be able to return to, but it didn't seem very possible. (laughs).

So, I went back home after the summer, finished my senior year, got married, started on the expected trajectory of having kids, married and having kids and teaching school and just being the good wife that was expected in the 1960s. And then in the '70s, you know, it began to open up things, with the Women's Liberation Movement, people beginning to think about women's rights and women's ... Well, not only their rights, but also that women had been suppressed in ways that were not necessary. Women taking chances now and taking on more adventuresome roles.

Emy diGrappa: Well, it sounds like you were really intrigued about women and homesteading and that pioneer spirit of a woman. And so, how did that influence you? What- what was it that drew your attention to the pioneer woman?

Marcia Hensley: Well, when I came to ... I had a really, uh, wonderful opportunity. I had divorced and I was coming, and I had an opportunity to teach at Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs. While I was there, uh, one of my colleagues said, "You know, you really ought to read this book called Letters of a Woman Homesteader." She said, "Her experience reminds me of yours," and Elinore Pruitt Stewart came out to homestead in the early 1900s in Burnt Fork, Wyoming, which is close to Rock Springs. And she came out as a single woman, or as a widowed woman, with one child, and I came out as a divorced woman with two daughters. And it did really resonate with me. But what happened was, I was trying to get to know my new environment in Wyoming, so I took a history class in, Western history class, and in our textbook, the author said that women were reluctant pioneers, and I had just read Elinore Pruitt Stewart, so it was like, "Well, wait a minute. Elinore was certainly not reluctant at all."

And, so this disparity between what the historians were saying about women coming less, and what I was reading about Elinore and what I was experiencing really, although it was in the 1980s, 75 years after Elinore, I just thought, "You know, I don't believe that." (laughs). Or at least I questioned that. And, so that started me researching were there any other women who did homestead, uh, alone as a single woman, and if so, did they write about that? And if so, what did they say? What was it about? So that started me on this research project, just sort of informally, just out of my own curiosity, that eventually turned into a book.

Emy diGrappa: Yeah. And it's won many awards. I think about what is it that resonates with pioneer women and women living today right now. What do you think are the connections there?

Marcia Hensley: Well, I think it's the adventuresome spirit. I think you admire that kind of adventuresome spirit, and I think it takes that kind of adventuresome spirit no matter what walk of life you're in to have a fulfilling life. I think that just amazement at the hardships that they've gone through and- and overcome. Women homesteaders, you know, they came West out of a sense of adventure, but also out of a sense of opportunity. They felt their lives could be made better in the West, and that certainly was what brought me here. And they also had to have some sort of affection for this landscape, which is, you know, when, even in the 1980s when I came here from Oklahoma, it had a sort of frontier feel to it, and you have to have a certain kind of interest and curiosity about, uh, life, and willingness to maybe endure some difficult times that you wouldn't have if you- if you'd stayed at home.

Emy diGrappa: What have you learned about yourself, and- and what have you passed on to your daughters about being a single woman?

Marcia Hensley: Well, I feel like I have learned a lot about myself. Coming to Wyoming, I felt empowered by the environment and by the kind of people who were here. They never questioned my ability to do anything, and often gave me opportunities to grow. So I think it's important to believe in yourself. And, so I- I learned that through many, many different things that have happened. And I feel like I have taught my daughters to listen to their inner voice and to follow it. And oftentimes when you do that, it leads you in the right direction and it leads you, even though you can't anticipate exactly what that might be, from my experience, to illustrate that, the coming West had this- this fascination with Wyoming. And I found myself at a conference in Michigan, of all places, where I met a person who's from Western Wyoming College, and in conversation, learned that they had an opening f- for an English teacher. And so I followed that. I followed my heart there. I didn't know what was going to happen.

But if you know what direction you're following, sometimes opportunities will arise. And I think it's important to take those opportunities and go- go with them. And I think that it's something, I- I hope I have taught my own daughters, and- and I think I have. And I would tell any young woman that I, that would be my advice.

Emy diGrappa: Do you have an opportunity to mentor young women?

Marcia Hensley: Well, actually, yes. Uh, of course I taught at the college. I taught English at the college for many, many years. I've always been a teacher. And so, I hope that by being a role model for them to- to see that here is this single woman, and- and here's what she did, although she did eventually marry, which I did. But I think mentoring is important. I think just telling the stories of women who have succeeded. And that's one of the things I hope that my book has done, is to tell these stories that had not been common knowledge about single women homesteading alone. They're such an inspiration for what a woman can do if she sets her mind to it. And so I think I've been interested in women's stories all along. As I wrote the book, I've been interested in, I've doing oral histories. I think the oral histories of women and their experiences, I was especially interested in those as stories of women who came West alone.

Also what you're doing now. I mean, I think it's so important to get those stories out there, because stories can be so powerful influence on people.

Emy diGrappa: Tell me about one of your favorite stories, your favorite characters, and their life experience that inspired you in your book.

Marcia Hensley: One of my favorites is a woman named Florence Blake-Smith. She homesteaded near Wright, Wyoming, which is near Gillette. And this was in the early, I think, I can't remember this exact date, maybe about 1908, something like that. So she was, had grown up in Chicago. Her family had no farming background. She was actually a bookkeeper for the Federal Reserve living in Chicago. She ran into a young man she'd gone to college with, or high school with, who had just come back from homesteading in Wyoming, and he was telling her all about it and how enthusiastic he was about it. It's his future there. And she writes that she thought, "Well, if he can do it, I can do it too."

And one of the significant things is that you could homestead, women could homestead by themselves because if they were unmarried, they were considered a head of household. So, she realized that you could do that, you know, legally do it. And she did with absolutely no idea what she was getting into really. But she read up on it and she had a wonderful time. She ended up writing a book called Cow Tips and Cactus about her experience, which is now out of print, but parts of it are printed in- in my book. And she was very successful and she loved it. She had a wonderful time doing it and she did prove up. And it meant a lot to her to have that land in the family, even though she went ahead and remarried after a time, a man that she met in Wyoming, and continued to live in Wyoming the rest of her life.

Emy diGrappa: What do you think are some of the- the challenges for women living in Wyoming today to make it in business and politics? Do you think there are some obstacles?

Marcia Hensley: Well, I've thought a lot about your question about that. I did not face obstacles in teaching, in- in my teaching career much, so I don't know that I can speak directly to the experiences of women in business here. I think in general, the attitude toward women in Wyoming is very open and very, you know, what I experienced was always, if I had an idea, I was encouraged to go for it, to pursue that. And I would hope that is true for most women. I'm sure that there are some obstacles, but for me, the only obstacle I ever had was, in my career I felt was when I was trying to get my book published, and it's hard for anyone to publish a book. But I did feel like some of the publishers I approached, many of the- the people on the board were masculine and they didn't appreciate some of the things that I was pointing out in my book about women being kind of, the- the stories of women homesteaders being neglected in the mainstream histories of the West. So they- they rejected that.

So it was ultimately a woman publisher, High Plains Press here in Wyoming, who accepted my book, and that was a great fit. But that's the main place I felt I have seen an obstacle. Otherwise, I think it's been very open.

Emy diGrappa: Do you think that books about history that young people can relate to, do they find it fascinating? What- what's some of the feedback that you've gotten from your students regarding women and history, and is it interesting to them?

Marcia Hensley: Well, it is to some of them. (laughs). I just recently had a young woman in Nebraska contact me because she had read my book, and she was writing a paper for one of her English classes about women homesteaders because she read my book. So yeah, I think it does. And- and I was thrilled when that happened because, you know, you don't know. You write a book and you put it out there and you hope that it makes a difference. And at least for that young woman, that was very recent, it has made a differences. And when I was still teaching at the college level, that also, you know, and I told my students about what I was doing, although I wasn't writing the book at that time. I had started the research. And I think it has always resonated with any woman, especially in the West, maybe- maybe not Easterners. I don't know. I think the Easterners are pretty interested in what goes on out here also.

Emy diGrappa: Do you ever make any kind of comparisons between the women who pioneered in the West and what has happened today? Like for example, with the #MeToo Movement, the dangers of being by yourself, the dangers of men taking advantage of women. Is any of that touched on in your book back then?

Marcia Hensley: You know, the women homesteaders, uh, that's really an interesting question. Most of the things that they wrote, and my book is based on what they wrote, you know, both a- a collection of the things they wrote. There was never any mention. Well, there was one mention one time of a woman who felt, uh, a little bit worried out on her lonely homestead because there had been a- a vagrant man in the area, and so at night, she would stack things in front of her door and make sure so that nobody could get in, and she was a little worried. Now whether or not they only wrote about positive things instead of negative things, which I think is possible, because sometimes they were writing for magazines and sometimes they were writing home letters that they wouldn't want to worry people. But as far as actually finding evidence of that in their writing, I did not, except for that one thing.

Now, I'm sure that there were rough- rough characters, but these women, apparently, these are the women who succeeded. That's another thing about my book. I did not include, did not find failure stories. And if women had a bad experience, they didn't write about it. And I think that those things could have happened, but they didn't want to talk about it.

Emy diGrappa: I think that's interesting.

Marcia Hensley: Yeah. And so that could be, yeah, it could relate to the Me Too thing now because women are talking about it. I mean, there's always been that reluctance up until now, for a woman to say, "Oh, well, maybe I unintentionally encouraged this," or, you know, the- the various pressured that women have felt over the years. And now women have been given a voice, or have taken the opportunity to, or felt it needed to be done, and it has. Although I- I do think that sometimes the Me Too has gone a little too far in destroying the careers of men who, certainly not the Harvey Weinstein’s, but there have been some kind of honorable, otherwise honorable and good men whose lives have been pretty much destroyed as the result of that. And I don't quite know how to resolve that in my own mind, but.

Emy diGrappa: Right.

Marcia Hensley: There is that.

Emy diGrappa: That's true. There is that. So, what wisdom are you imparting to young women whenever you can? What would be your piece of advice for a young woman growing up today and the challenges that maybe they're facing or not facing, but how do you think you can inspire them?

Marcia Hensley: Yeah. Well, I think what I would say is to listen to your own inner voice and follow it to the best of your ability. I've always liked the phrase, "Be the change you want to see in the world." And I think that can happen. Like I said, I have said before, if you are open to the opportunities that arise in your life and you say, "Yes, I can do that," or, "Yes, I can, I'll try that." When opportunities come, take them. And I think that that would be my- my one- one main advice that I would give.

Emy diGrappa: Well, thanks, Marcia. It's been great talking to you.

Marcia Hensley: Well, thank you very much.